Law and grace can be viewed as two important biblical realities that often seem to create tension and even lead to confusion. John Newton, author of “Amazing Grace,” said, “Ignorance of the nature and design of the Law is at the bottom of most of our religious mistakes.”
In Matthew 5:17-20, Jesus said, “Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or Prophets; I did not come to abolish, but to fulfill. For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass away from the Law, until all is accomplished. Whoever then annuls one of the least of these commandments, and so teaches others, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever keeps and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.”
Jesus is referring to the whole concept of the Law in these verses. Christ did not abolish or set aside the Law, because the Law reveals God’s character, teaches us the true nature of people, and shows us the need for salvation. Jesus fulfilled the Law. He is the only one who has perfectly kept the Law in word, thought and deed. He is the only one who perfectly understood the intent of the Law. He alone satisfied the requirement of holiness established by a holy God. In John 1:29, John the Baptist saw Jesus and said, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” All the millions of lambs previously sacrificed by the Jews could never satisfy God, but rather were pictures of the sacrifice that would — Jesus Christ.
All the requirements of the Law were fulfilled by Him, and, on that basis, we can have a perfect, righteous standing before a holy God. His righteousness is transferred to our account when we, by grace, through faith, trust Christ as Savior. Romans 10:4 says, “Christ is the end of the Law for righteousness to everyone who believes.”
In verse 18, our Lord emphasizes the authority of the Word of God. Whatever God has promised will come to pass. Scripture cannot be broken, set aside or annihilated.
The importance of the Law and God’s Word is stressed in verse 19. Neither the commands of God nor the principles of Scripture can be changed because of public opinion, the philosophy of the time, culture, our circumstances or anything else. His Word does not need to change. As our Baptist Faith and Message says, it is “truth without any mixture of error.” Since the Scriptures come from a holy and perfect God, they do not need to change. The Word of God is sufficient.
With the first coming of Christ, many promises of the Law were fulfilled, but the moral principles of the Law continue.
Verse 20 teaches that righteousness cannot be experienced by anyone apart from the righteousness of God. What kind of “righteousness” did the scribes and Pharisees have? They tithed, fasted, attended services, gave alms, did good works, etc., but they did not have a personal relationship with God. They made the Law’s demands less demanding and the Law’s liberties more permissive.
Jesus addressed the scribes and Pharisees in Matthew 23:28: “You outwardly appear righteous to men, but inwardly you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.” His statement in Matthew 5:20 is staggering. If our righteousness is not greater than the scribes and Pharisees, we are not righteous at all. It is God who declares us to be righteous (possessing a right standing before God), and it is God’s Spirit living in us who gives us the ability to live rightly.
Our righteous living must be empowered by God, anchored in our righteous position in Christ, and demonstrated by right deeds that glorify God.